- Do Man's Curses Work?
- Moshe Ben-Chaim
- To address this topic, two sections in talmud must be studied
independently. I will list each section, analyze them on their own
content, and list the issues. Then I will present a summary at the end
with the ideas and solutions derived from both sections of Talmud.
- "Rabbi Samuel son of Nachmani stated, 'All God's
traits operate measure for measure', as it is stated,
(Malachim II:7) 'Elisha said, hear God's word, at this
time tomorrow a seah (measurement) of fine flour will be
sold for a shekel (minimal amount of money) and two seahs
of barley for a shekel in the gates of Samaria.' (At that
moment the Jews lacked food). The king's captain upon
whose arm he was leaning answered the man of God, 'Even if
God would make the storages of heaven open up, could this
happen?' Elisha then answered, 'You will see this with
your eyes, but you will not eat from it.' And it is
written, 'And it was to him so, that the people trampled
him in the gates and he (the captain who doubted Elisha)
- (The talmud continues) "But
perhaps it is Elisha's curse which caused this captain's
death (not God meting out measure for measure), in
accordance with Rabbi Judah's quote from Rav, "A
curse of a wise sage even for naught comes true".
- (The talmud answers) "If
this were so, it should have written, 'and he was trampled
and died'. Why does it add 'in the gates'? Because it was
due to the matter of the gates." (i.e., the food
which he denied would be in sold in the gates, thereby
proving it was God's justice, not Elisha's curse.
- A number of questions arise:
- 1) This last statement seems inconclusive. Why can't we
say that Elisha also worked measure for measure and included
the gates in his curse, that is, that the captain would die in
the gates? Why does the Talmud feel convinced that since
he died in the gates, it could not be due to Elisha's curse?
Death alone could be due to Elisha's curse, but not the
- 2) Can man actually curse and it comes true?
- 3) What does this mean that a wise man's curse even for
naught comes true? Does this mean that one undeserving
will still be harmed by the wise man's curse? Where is the
justice in this?
- 4) There is an inherent contradiction in the statement of
Rav: "A curse of a wise sage even for naught comes
- If one is wise, does it mean that he is cursing someone
undeserving? If so, the man isn't wise. And if the recipient
is deserving of the curse, then it is not for naught.
Accidental killings required those murderers to be
exiled to cities of refuge, and they only leave exile
when the high priest dies. They wish for his death, as
they can then go home. The reason for this was offered
by a rabbi. He said that as these murderers wish for
the high priests death, they will hopefully come to
acknowledge their sadistic or vicious drives, and then
come to realize this tendency was the cause for
another person to die at their hands. Had they not had
these drives, they would have taken care to never have
placed another in harms way. It is this negligence of
human life which caused the death of those
- "Mothers of the priests used to clothe and feed
those exiled who accidentally killed. These mothers hoped
that since they extended kindness to those exiled, they in
return would not pray for these mother's priests (sons) to
die. The reasoning (why the priests didn't die) is because
the exiled murderers didn't pray for his death. Had they
prayed, the priests would die."
- (The talmud continues) "But
how can this be (that their prayers effectuate his death),
isn't it written (Proverbs 21:2) 'as a bird moves suddenly
and as a swallow flies off, so also does the curse for
naught come back to him (who cursed)'. Meaning, not only
doesn't the curse come about, bit it also comes back to
the utterer." (So those exiled who pray - or
curse - for the death of the high priest, such curses
should not take hold. But yet is says they did. This is
- (The talmud answers) "The
priests are at fault, ...as they should have prayed that
accidental killings be averted by God." Since the
priests were lax and didn't pray for this, the killings
did occur, and the priests are at fault.
- (The talmud continues) "Another
answer given why the mothers tended to those exiled was to
induce them to pray for the lives of their sons the
priests. Had those exiled prayed, the priests would live,
but if they didn't pray, the priests would die."
- Curses are only actualized by God alone, as man has no
ability to alter nature. I believe both answers are really
one. We can explain the Talmud's statements in the following
- "The reasoning (why a the priests didn't die)
is because the exiled murderers didn't pray for his death.
Had they prayed, the priests would die." This
means that if those exiled prayed for his death, this shows
the priest was not an upright individual. The cursing of the
priest in reality has no effect. Rather, it is an indication
of a the level of the priest who God will mete out justice
accordingly, regardless of the exiled people's curse.
- "Another answer given why
the mothers tended to those exiled was to induce them to
pray for the lives of their sons the priests. Had those
exiled prayed, the priests would live, but if they didn't
pray, they would die."
This teaches that the actions of those exiled again
indicates the level of he priest. By praying for the priests
to live, it is representative of the perfection of the
priest, that even those exiled attest to his greatness. God
all along knows the level of the priests and spares his
life. We see that the Talmud does not credit man with
the ability to curse, as in both cases, the exiled peoples
must call to God - prayer - for their wish.
- (The talmud continues)"A
curse of a wise sage even for naught comes true. From
where do we learn this? From Achitophel. When King David
desired to lay the foundations of the Temple, the waters
of the deep threatened to encompass the Earth killing
mankind. David desired to know whether he was allowed to
write God's name on a shard, and cast it into the oceans
to stop the waters. David said, "If anyone knows the
answer and keeps silent, he should die by
strangulation". Achitophel thought to himself an a
priori argument (kal v'chomer), "If for the sake of a
married couple, God's name may be erased, (referring to
the Sotah) so certainly for the entire world God's name
may be erased". Achitophel then told David it was
permissible to write God's name on the shard cast it into
the ocean, knowing the water would erase God's name. David
did so, and it stopped the waters". Nonetheless,
Achitophel later on died from hanging himself. Apparently
King David's curse still took effect.
- (The talmud continues) "A
curse of a wise sage even made on condition comes true.
From where do we learn this? From Eli who said to Samuel
"so should happen to you (referring to having
improper sons) if you conceal this matter from me. Even
though Samuel told Eli the matter, nonetheless, it says,
'his sons did not go in his path".
- It is important to note that in Eli's case, the words
"don't conceal" are used. Perhaps teaching us that
Eli's cursing was well founded. He experienced resistance
from Samuel before resorting to cursing. The reason David's
case is called "for naught" is because there was
not yet any resistance to King David which required his
curse of death to one who held back the answer. In Eli's
case however, he had already approached Samuel and Samuel
resisted telling Eli about the matter. Therefore, Eli said
"do not conceal it from me". Being faced with
opposition from Samuel, Eli used a threat which was not
for naught, as the circumstance required a more forceful
approach. In King David's case, there was no circumstance
warranting such a threat yet. It may have been King David's
own urgency which prompted the use of a curse. For this
reason alone we call King David's case "for
naught" (no circumstance) but Eli's case is not for
naught, as the situation required curse.
- Ramban and Ritvah concur that regarding David's curse,
Achitophel delayed somewhat, which grieved King David, and
was therefore at fault. We must say that God will punish
regardless of David's curse. One who sins, God will punish -
one who acts righteously, God rewards.
- This now brings us back to our original questions, and we are now
better equipped to answer them:
- When a person curses, he has no powers. His curse is merely
indicative of his perception of another person's level of corruption.
This corrupt person will be punished by God regardless of his curse.
Why then did King David and others curse if they do not effectuate any
changes in the universe? Perhaps the did so to indicate to others
their corruption. Viz., anyone who would not assist King David in
saving the world, such a person is worthy of death. And perhaps
choking to death fits the crime, as this would be the case of someone
who drowned if David couldn't avert the present disaster.
- We asked earlier, "How can a wise man curse for naught?"
- We now understand the term "cursing for naught" not as one
who curses someone else undeserving, but as cursing without a
circumstance warranting a curse. This does not mean it is wrong to
curse, or that the recipient was innocent. Achitophel was guilty. Had
he been innocent, the Rabbis in the Talmud would not have aligned
David's curse with Achitophel's death. God never punishes without sin.
Judaism is about absolute justice, as Talmud Sabbath states (55a)
"there is no death without sin, and (there are) no punishments
without transgression". Accordingly, if one is innocent, another
person's curse is meaningless.
- In the cases recorded so far, we find that the recipients of the
curses were in fact negligent. This is why men such as King David,
Eli, and those in exile cursed others - they all deserved the curse.
Also, a wise man never curses another who is innocent and without
flaw. This would be unjust. We also concluded that regardless of man's
curse, righteous people are protected by God and wicked people are
punished. Man's utterances play no role in the meting out of reward
and punishment. That is God exclusive domain, as is written in Ezekiel
18, and in Deut. 24:16:"Fathers are not killed for the
children's sins, and children are not killed for their father's sins,
each man in his own sin will they be killed." Man's curse is
- If man did in fact have the ability to curse another person, this
would mean that man has more power than God. It would also suggest
that the world does not run by strict justice, as a foolish man may
curse a wise sage, and the sage would be unjustly ruined. This however
is not the case as God runs the world in accordance with justice and
alone, while man is powerless.
- Perhaps this is the meaning that the Talmud is getting at when it
says that Elisha couldn't have decreed where the captain would die. We
asked at the outset, "Why can't we say that Elisha also worked
measure for measure and included the gates in his curse, that is, that
the captain would die in the gates? Why does the Talmud feel
convinced that since he died in the gates, it could not be due to
Elisha's curse? I would suggest that the Talmud is hinting that man -
Elisha - may know that a person is guilty, but he does not know how to
implement exact justice befitting the crime. Only God is aware of all
nuances in a person's flawed nature, to the extent that only God can
mete out exact, measure for measure justice. Elisha is only man, and
as such, lacks greatly in his knowledge of another beings' perfection
- We are left with two peripheral questions:
- 1) How does the curse come back to the one who cursed as stated (Proverbs
21:2) "As a bird moves suddenly and as a swallow flies off, so
also does the curse for naught come back to him (who cursed)"
- 2) What is the metaphor of the case with King David and the shard
which settled the ocean?